swell on Wikipedia


  • enPR: swĕl, IPA(key): /swɛl/
  • (file)
  • Rhymes: -ɛl

Etymology 1Edit

From Middle English swellen, from Old English swellan (to swell), from Proto-Germanic *swellaną (to swell), of unknown origin.

Cognate with Old Frisian swella, Low German swellen, Dutch zwellen (to swell), German schwellen (to swell), Swedish svälla (to swell), Icelandic svella. The adjective may derive from the noun.


swell (third-person singular simple present swells, present participle swelling, simple past swelled or swole or swoll, past participle swollen or swelled)

  1. (intransitive) To become bigger, especially due to being engorged.
    • 1599, William Shakespeare, “The Life of Henry the Fift”, in Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies [] (First Folio), London: [] Isaac Iaggard, and Ed[ward] Blount, published 1623, →OCLC, [Act PROLOGUE, (please specify the scene number in lowercase Roman numerals)]:
      O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
      The brightest heaven of invention,
      A kingdom for a stage, princes to act
      And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!
    • 1914, P. C. Wren, chapter 5, in Snake and Sword[1], London: Longmans, Green, page 78:
      “If you drinks a drop more, Miss Lucy, you’ll just go like my pore young sister goed, [] Pop she did not. She swole … swole and swole.”
      “You mean ‘swelled,’ Cookoo,” corrected Lucille []
      [] I say she swole—and what is more she swole clean into a dropsy.”
    • 1999 April 6, Stephen King, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon: A Novel, New York, N.Y.: Scribner, →ISBN; republished New York, N.Y.: Pocket Books, May 2017, →ISBN, pages 67–68:
      She had overheard her Mom and Mrs. Thomas from across the street talking about someone who was allergic to stings, and Mrs. Thomas had said, "Ten seconds after it gut im, poor ole Frank was swole up like a balloon. If he hadn't had his little kit with the hyperdermic, I guess he woulda choked to death."
  2. (transitive) To cause to become bigger.
    Rains and dissolving snow swell the rivers in spring.
    • 1633, John Donne, “The Storme”, in Poems[2], London: John Marriot, page 57:
      Mildly it [the wind] kist our sailes, and, fresh, and sweet,
      As, to a stomack sterv’d, whose insides meete,
      Meate comes, it came; and swole our sailes, when wee
      So joyd, as Sara’ her swelling joy’d to see.
    • 1687, Francis Atterbury, An Answer to Some Considerations on the Spirit of Martin Luther and the Original of the Reformation[3], Oxford, page 12:
      ’Tis low ebb sure with his Accuser, when such Peccadillos as these are put in to swell the Charge.
    • 1905, Baroness Emmuska Orczy, chapter 2, in The Affair at the Novelty Theatre[4]:
      For this scene, a large number of supers are engaged, and in order to further swell the crowd, practically all the available stage hands have to ‘walk on’ dressed in various coloured dominoes, and all wearing masks.
    • 2013 June 18, Simon Romero, “Protests Widen as Brazilians Chide Leaders”, in New York Times, retrieved 21 June 2013:
      After a harsh police crackdown last week fueled anger and swelled protests, President Dilma Rousseff, a former guerrilla who was imprisoned under the dictatorship and has now become the target of pointed criticism herself, tried to appease dissenters by embracing their cause on Tuesday.
  3. (intransitive) To grow gradually in force or loudness.
    The organ music swelled.
  4. (transitive) To cause to grow gradually in force or loudness.
    • 1880, Felix Leopold Oswald, Summerland Sketches, page 57:
      It commenced with a slow crescendo, so irresistibly lugubrious that two of our dogs at once raised their heads and swelled their voices into a responsive tremolo, which may have been heard and appreciated by their distant relatives.
  5. (transitive) To raise to arrogance; to puff up; to inflate.
    to be swelled with pride or haughtiness
  6. (intransitive) To be raised to arrogance.
  7. To be elated; to rise arrogantly.
    • 1662, John Dryden, To My Lord Chancellor Presented on New-Years-Day[5], London: Henry Herringman, page 5:
      In all things else above our humble fate
      Your equal mind yet swells not into state,
      But like some mountain in those happy Isles
      Where in perpetual Spring young Nature smiles,
      Your greatnesse shows:
  8. To be turgid, bombastic, or extravagant.
    swelling words  a swelling style
  9. To protuberate; to bulge out.
    A cask swells in the middle.

Etymology 2Edit

From Middle English swelle, from the verb swellen (modern swell).


swell (countable and uncountable, plural swells)

  1. The act of swelling; increase in size.
  2. A bulge or protuberance.
  3. Increase of power in style, or of rhetorical force.
    • 1826, Walter Savage Landor, Imaginary Conversations, London: Henry Colburn, 2nd edition, Volume I, Conversation 6, p. 128,[6]
      Concentrated are his arguments, select and distinct and orderly his topics, ready and unfastidious his expressions, popular his allusions, plain his illustrations, easy the swell and subsidence of his periods []
  4. A long series of ocean waves, generally produced by wind, and lasting after the wind has ceased.
    • 1881–1882, Robert Louis Stevenson, chapter 24, in Treasure Island, London; Paris: Cassell & Company, published 14 November 1883, →OCLC:
      There was a great, smooth swell upon the sea.
    • 2023 February 8, Barry Doe, “Birmingham & West Midlands Atlas is a fine production”, in RAIL, number 976, page 63, photo caption:
      The Tilbury-Gravesend foot passenger ferry fights its way through a high swell on the river Thames on February 16 2022.
  5. (music) A gradual crescendo followed by diminuendo.
    • 1918, W[illiam] B[abington] Maxwell, chapter V, in The Mirror and the Lamp, Indianapolis, Ind.: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, →OCLC:
      He was thinking; but the glory of the song, the swell from the great organ, the clustered lights, [] , the height and vastness of this noble fane, its antiquity and its strength—all these things seemed to have their part as causes of the thrilling emotion that accompanied his thoughts.
  6. (music) A device for controlling the volume of a pipe organ.
  7. (music) A division in a pipe organ, usually the largest enclosed division.
  8. A hillock or similar raised area of terrain.
    • 1909, Joseph A. Altsheler, chapter 2, in The Last of the Chiefs:
      Off on the crest of a swell a moving figure was seen now and then. "Antelope," said the hunters.
  9. (geology) An upward protrusion of strata from whose central region the beds dip quaquaversally at a low angle.
  10. (informal, dated) A person who is stylish, fancy, or elegant.
    • c. 1850, William Makepeace Thackeray, "The Kickleburys on the Rhine" in The Christmas Books of Mr. M. A. Titmarsh:
      It costs him no more to wear all his ornaments about his distinguished person than to leave them at home. If you can be a swell at a cheap rate, why not?
    • 1887, Horatio Alger, chapter 9, in The Cash Boy:
      He was dressed in a flashy style, not unlike what is popularly denominated a swell.
    • 1892, Occident - Volume 22, page 36:
      Between the two extremes of college men the unsocial dig and the flunking swell, lies the majority, who, acknowledging the duty and merit of hard work, see the value in social and recreative line, but are at somewhat of a loss, seemingly, how to proportionize the time given to the different sides of college life, or how far to allow themselves to go on the more attractive side.
  11. (informal) A person of high social standing; an important person.
    • 1864, Anthony Trollope, chapter 2, in The Small House at Allington:
      "I am not in Mr Crosbie's confidence. He is in the General Committee Office, I know; and, I believe, has pretty nearly the management of the whole of it."
      "I'll tell you what he is, Bell; Mr Crosbie is a swell." And Lilian Dale was right; Mr Crosbie was a swell.
    • 1900, Joseph Conrad, chapter 14, in Lord Jim[7], Edinburgh and London: William Blackwood, page 176:
      The only sensible man I came across was the cabman who drove me about. A broken-down swell he was, I fancy.
    • 1906, Gilbert Parker, chapter 8, in The Trespasser:
      You buy a lot of Indian or halfbreed loafers with beaver-skins and rum, go to the Mount of the Burning Arrows, and these fellows dance round you and call you one of the lost race, the Mighty Men of the Kimash Hills. And they'll do that while the rum lasts. Meanwhile you get to think yourself a devil of a swell—you and the gods!
    • 1938, Graham Greene, Brighton Rock, New York: Vintage, 2002, Part Seven, Chapter 3, p. 209,[8]
      [] Colleoni’s going to take over this place from you, and he’s got his lawyer. A man in London. A swell.’
  12. The front brow of a saddle bow, connected in the tree by the two saddle bars to the cantle on the other end.
    Synonyms: pommel, fork
  • (person dressed in a fancy or elegant manner): dandy, dude, toff
  • (person of high social standing): toff
Derived termsEdit

Etymology 3Edit

From the noun "swell" (a person dressed in an elegant manner).


swell (not generally comparable, comparative sweller, superlative swellest)

  1. (dated) Fashionable, like a swell or dandy.
    • 1912, Popular Mechanics, page 20:
      We pay the express, $5 a day our new agents are making and wearing the swellest clothes besides; old agents after one season make twice as much.
  2. (Canada, US, dated slang) Excellent.
    • 1927 Mar. 31, Ernest Hemingway, letter to F. Scott Fitzgerald:
      ...you are my devoted friend too. You do more and work harder and oh shit I'd get maudlin about how damned swell you are. My god I'd like to see you... You're a hell of a good guy.
    • 1931, Dashiell Hammett, The Glass Key[9], page 176:
      Jeff swaggered over to Ned Beaumont, threw his left arm roughly around his shoulders, seized Ned Beaumont’s right hand with his right hand, and addressed the company jovially: “This is the swellest guy I ever skinned a knuckle on and I’ve skinned them on plenty.”
    • 1951, J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye, Little, Brown and Company, →OCLC, page 23:
      He was telling us all about what a swell guy he was, what a hot-shot and all, []
    • 1958, Robert A. Heinlein, Have Space Suit—Will Travel[10], page 8:
      [] we’re league champions in basketball and our square-dance team is state runner-up and we have a swell sock hop every Wednesday.
    • 2012 September 10, Ariel Levy, “The Space In Between”, in The New Yorker:
      Orgasms are swell, but they are not the remedy to every injustice.


swell (not comparable)

  1. (Canada, US, informal) Very well.
    • 1929, Dashiell Hammett, chapter 12, in Red Harvest[11]:
      “That lousy ring wasn’t worth no grand. I did swell to get two centuries for it.”
    • 1966, Truman Capote, In Cold Blood, New York: Modern Library, 2013, Part 3, p. 251,[12]
      [] Last August, when I left The Walls, I figured I had every chance to start new. I got a job in Olathe, lived with my family, and stayed home nights. I was doing swell—”


Middle EnglishEdit

Etymology 1Edit

From Old English swellan.



  1. Alternative form of swellen

Etymology 2Edit

From the verb swellen.



  1. Alternative form of swelle



Unadapted borrowing from English swell.


swell m (plural swells)

  1. (surfing) swell (series of waves)